SPOTLIGHT: Cindy Nicholas
‘Queen of the English Channel’ just one of many accolades in a storied careerby Don Campbell
Cindy Nicholas (BSc, 1979)
Cindy Nicholas first caught the public’s attention in 1974 when she swam across Lake Ontario at the age of 16. A year later she took on the English Channel, shattering the previous record by swimming from France to England in only 9 hours and 46 minutes.
The Scarborough native had learned her first swimming strokes at age two from her father at an outdoor pool near Kennedy and Lawrence, and later trained with the Scarborough Swim Club, where she was swimming competitively by age five.
She would go on to complete an incredible 19 channel crossings between 1975 and 1982, including five two-way crossings, earning the title “Queen of the English Channel.” She would also become the first woman to swim across the challenging Bay of Chaleur in 1977 and the first person to complete a two-way crossing of the bay the next year.
But years of endurance swimming had taken a toll on her body, and after graduating from UTSC Nicholas set her sights on a career in law. It wasn’t long before her competitive nature—“I hate to lose!”—led to a stint in provincial politics. In 1987 she successfully ran for a seat in the Ontario Legislature as MPP for Scarborough Centre.
While her swimming career brought international fame and recognition, she remains fiercely proud of her Scarborough roots. “There are so many pools that I got to swim in growing up in Scarborough, and throughout the years I’ve met so many wonderful people,” she says. “I’m proud that Scarborough is my home.”
Nicholas is a member of the Order of Canada, Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame and the International Swimming Hall of Fame and was the first recipient of the Scarborough Award of Merit. More recently, she received a star on the Scarborough Walk of Fame in 2006.
She has also got back into swimming, albeit for exercise rather than competition. “I feel great after a swim,” says Nicholas. “Some people read, others run, but I swim…. It’s a great tension reliever.”
Even at a young age Dev Basu (BBA, 2010) showed he was an entrepreneur in the making. At age 14 he was selling the latest computer games to fellow students through his own CD distribution service. “I’ve always had a knack for promoting the latest things on the market,” he says.
Following graduation Basu worked in various marketing roles before setting out on his own in 2009 and starting his own online marketing company, Powered by Search. His venture, which has grown significantly in a short period of time, now boasts a lineup of clients that include Rogers, Remax, Primus, IGH and General Motors. Powered by Search was also recently ranked by Profit magazine as one of Canada’s fastest-growing young companies.
As for his recipe to success, Basu credits his team’s skills and the firm’s flat hierarchy, which promotes open communication and the free exchange of ideas. “It’s a very open environment,” he says. “I sit with my team, we have daily meetings first thing in the morning, and we don’t have closed doors in the office.”
It’s a desire for knowledge that drives Devin Ragwen (HBSc, 1998) in his current position at Foresters Canada. As manager of competitive and industry analysis with the insurance industry giant, his job is to examine consumer markets and the competition for emerging trends.
“It involves sifting through vast amounts of data and information to find the larger picture and the things left unsaid,” he says. “I really love the research aspect of my work. It keeps me motivated.”
Ragwen, an avid alumni volunteer, received the U of T Arbor award in 2009 for outstanding personal service to the university. Born and raised in Scarborough, he also volunteers at the adult learning program at Malvern Public Library, where he teaches adults to read.
Melissa Loretta (HBA, 2008) began her music career with a fortuitous encounter on social networking venue Myspace. In 2009, Los Angeles music producer Amurai discovered Loretta’s songs while visiting her Myspace page and was so impressed he signed her.
Together they recorded “Unconditional Love,” which was instantly signed by dance-music sensation Ferry Corsten’s record label. Now, Loretta’s music can be heard around the world on radio, in concerts and clubs, and on YouTube and iTunes.
Meanwhile, her collaboration in 2011 with recording artist Shogun resulted in an International Dance Music Award nomination last year for their song, “Skyfire.” Loretta’s success, which has led to performances at major concerts in Europe, is a far cry from her humble roots singing at church and UTSC events.
While writing music remains her number one passion, Loretta recently applied for a master in occupational therapy after becoming interested in the profession when her grandmother fell sick.
Jussi Maattanen (HBSc, 2002) parlayed his entrepreneurial spirit and a passion for home renovations into his own construction business. While at UTSC he studied neuroscience and biology but also worked for a local general contractor—a job that triggered the itch to launch JPM Construction Inc.
“There were a lot of tough times, interspersed with good times. Sometimes I wondered to myself what I was doing and even thought about getting out,” says Maattanen, recalling his company’s first few years in operation. But since then, JPM Construction Inc. has grown into a highly successful venture with several projects across the country.
Maattanen enjoys the challenges of owning a business and says the complex problem-solving aspects of the construction industry are what continue to drive him forward.
A passion for science and math inspired Lendyl D’Sousa (HBSc, 2004) to become a teacher. It was in high school that he discovered his knack for teaching while helping tutor his friends in math and science. “That’s where it all started,” he says. “One day, a friend said to me, ‘Hey, you’re good at this. You should be a teacher.’ ”
D’Sousa relishes his current role as a science teacher at James Cardinal McGuigan Catholic High School on Finch Avenue West in Downsview. “I love working with students. Helping them understand a concept is easily the most rewarding part.”
In his spare time, D’Sousa volunteers with the Heart Beatz program through Cliffcrest Community Centre, where he tutors at-risk youth and offers financial counselling to parents.
While still an undergraduate at UTSC, Michael Nitsopoulos (BSC, 2003) began his creative design career doing contract work.
Following graduation and a stint in design school, he worked for a big downtown design firm, but his entrepreneurial spirit inspired him to strike out on his own. Four years ago, he started his design studio, CinderBloc, with friend and co-worker Ryan Di Leo, and the duo have not looked back since.
After a couple of challenging years as a startup, CinderBloc is now building up its portfolio and clientele. An important part of their success, says Nitsopoulos, is confidence in their product and passion in what they do. “If I won the lottery today, I would still be in for work tomorrow,” he says.
What Andrew Papadimitropoulos (HBSc, 2004) enjoys most about his job is that every day brings a new challenge. As a lawyer at Laxton Glass LLP, he handles cases involving professional negligence and motor vehicle accidents. “It’s a very interesting and varied job,” he says. “You really have to be on your toes all of the time.”
While he didn’t intentionally set out to practice insurance law after graduation, he was attracted by the prospect of steady employment and the flexibility afforded by the industry. “It offers a good introduction to many different areas of the law.”
Gaining invaluable leadership skills and self-reliance is what attracts Mitchell Lee (HBA, 2011) most to life in the military. Master Corporal Lee, who is stationed out of several armories in the GTA, conducts live firing training at military bases in Meaford and Petawawa.
His most memorable experience came in the summer of 2009 when he worked as a drill instructor training recruits at Canadian Forces Base Wainright, in Denwood, Alberta. “When I walked into the room and saw 64 fresh-faced recruits, that’s the exact moment I knew I had to be a leader and a role model for these kids,” Lee says.
While unsure what the future holds, Lee plans on transitioning out of the military and into a civilian career. He has recently obtained a sales and management certificate and an ESL training certificate.
Both Laura Mendes (HBA, 2005) and her partner, John Loerchner (HBA, 2005), landed marketing jobs right out of university.
But because these two self-described “Type A entrepreneurs” wanted to meld their artistic skills and business acumen to develop their own creative projects, they started Labspace Studio in 2007 on the side. Eventually, both were able to leave their jobs—Loerchner at a big ad agency and Mendes at a commercial art gallery—and commit to running Labspace Studio full-time.
Their company follows a hybrid business model, working on projects in the arts as well as in marketing. As an art house the company develops interdisciplinary art projects and curates large-scale exhibitions. As a creative agency, Mendes and Loerchner work with businesses and community groups to develop brand identity and launch promotional campaigns.
“We like to think of Labspace Studio as a sustainable arts enterprise,” says Mendes. “The marketing work supports the social and art work we do in the studio.”